He grew up in rural Eastern Washington, played football in high school and worked at a fast-food restaurant as a teen.
Childhood friends remember him as quiet and normal – far from the angry racist that Kevin William Harpham portrayed himself as in more than 1,000 posts on a hate-themed message board for white supremacists.
But acquaintances later in life recall an eerie loner who unabashedly disparaged other ethnicities and seemed to have big plans.
A former neighbor in East Wenatchee said Harpham, now accused of attempting to bomb a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event in Spokane, once laughed at the idea of transporting black people to a desert island and blowing them up.
“I think Kevin was serious,” said Jill Truax. “My son just told me flat out, ‘I think he’s some white supremacist person … think he has an artillery in there.’
“It was like he on a mission or something,” Truax said.
Under the name Joe Snuffy, military slang for a low-ranking soldier, Harpham, 36, wrote of race war fantasies in Internet comments that, over the years, spiraled into vitriolic rants aimed at nearly every ethnicity.
Joe Snuffy registered on the white supremacist message board Vanguard News Network in November 2004 and identifies himself as a Colville native living in northeastern Washington. The Southern Poverty Law Center said it has confirmed Snuffy is Harpham.
Early posts discuss his decision to quit smoking and chewing tobacco and ask for help understanding computer software.
Soon, Harpham was talking of ways to dismantle society, seeking advice on stockpiling ammunition and acquiring guns – explaining that he already owned assault rifles – and offering to house a prominent white supremacist and Canadian hate crime fugitive.
He described himself as an electrician and discussed ways to disrupt society by vandalizing electricity stations.
“The only drawback to this kind of attack is I happen to use electricity too,” Harpham wrote in May 2008.
He also contributed cash to the racist movement. A posting on the Vanguard News Network by avowed racist Glenn Miller in December 2006 thanked him for a “gigantically large” $500 donation. The cash paid for nearly 7,000 copies of the hate group’s newspaper, said Miller, who added that Harpham was one of the top 5 or 6 donors from the website.
In a phone interview from his Missouri home, Miller said Harpham also donated to his congressional campaigns in 2006 and 2010, which included racist television advertisements that gained national attention.
Miller said he was “shocked” by Harpham’s arrest and believes he was framed by the federal government. Miller, founder of the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, said that Harpham, like himself, views Jews as a bigger threat than black people.
“I don’t believe he did it because he’s never advocated violence,” said Miller. “Of course, I didn’t read all of his posts.”
The son of a farmer, Harpham served three years in the military after attending Colville and Kettle Falls high schools in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He played football in high school and worked at McDonald’s, then attended Spokane Community College in 2002 and 2003. College officials say student privacy laws prevent them from releasing his course schedule.
High school friends remember Harpham as a quiet teen who enjoyed driving his 1966 Chevelle and who never displayed racist behavior.
Until his arrest last week on federal charges of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and possession of an unregistered explosive device, his criminal history included only a minor in possession of alcohol charge in 1994. Harpham currently is being held in Spokane County Jail without bail.
As a young boy, Harpham lived in Pleasant Valley, near Rice, Wash.; one of his neighbors there was 43-year-old Matt Taylor.
Taylor said Harpham’s father, Cecil, is a longtime farmer who tends cows, chickens and alfalfa and has never displayed racist views.
Harpham’s Internet postings support that.
“My dad who is 65 still thinks Russia is going to nuke the US someday. He isn’t racist but he is a (Christian) just like klanman here,” Harpham wrote as Joe Snuffy. “He thinks that is what Jesus wants us to do. LOL!”
Harpham’s mother, Lana Harpham, appears to have recently moved to Waxhaw, N.C., where his older sister teaches math at a middle school.
Taylor described Cecil “Bill” Harpham, 68, as a “bulldog” of a worker who eventually bought a farm on U.S. Highway 395, just north of Kettle Falls. Taylor happened to buy a neighboring property. Cecil Harpham told Taylor last year that he was training his son to take over the farm.
But the younger Harpham apparently didn’t stay.
In 1997 he bought 10 acres on a hillside just north of Addy, Wash. A 672-square-foot home was added in 2007. A friend said Harpham borrowed materials from his father and built the home himself.
He was arrested Wednesday as he drove across a bridge outside his home at 1088 West Cannon Way. Federal agents finished searching the property late Thursday.
In 2004, he was living in East Wenatchee; that’s about the same time he began posting on the white supremacist message board. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Harpham that year joined the racist group the National Alliance, which was founded by the late William Pierce, author of “The Turner Diaries.” The group’s current leader denies Harpham is a member.
East Wenatchee resident Dennis Dexter remembers Harpham as a model tenant at a duplex he owns on North Kentucky Avenue.
“There’s nothing negative I know about him, other than the current allegations,” Dexter said. “I don’t know where he got his bizarre views.”
Truax owns a home near the duplex. She said her ex-husband also served in the military, and he and Harpham sometimes discussed their racist views. But Harpham mostly kept to himself.
“He was friendly enough to speak to us,” she said. “What really amazed me was he never had any girlfriends. Frankly, he was, I’d say, a good-looking guy.”
Truax said Harpham seemed to be obsessed with buying her home, which she said is on a secluded property. “He seemed to almost want to pressure me into it,” she said. “It kind of makes me think he was kind of on a mission.”
Her son, then a teenager, remembers hearing Harpham use racial slurs; the boy sensed extremist views.
“My son definitely thought he was capable of something like this,” Truax said.
An employee at an Addy convenience store where Harpham was a regular customer said knowledge of explosives is common in the area.
“Almost every boy I grew up with knows how to make a bomb,” said Christy Ludwick, 23.
But investigators say the bomb found Jan. 17 on the northeast corner of Washington Street and Main Avenue in Spokane was unusually sophisticated and had lethal potential. Sources say the device was capable of being detonated remotely and contained shrapnel dipped in rat poison to enhance bleeding.
Domestic terrorist Eric Rudolph used similar backpack bombs packed with shrapnel in the 1990s
Harpham served from 1996 to 1999 as a fire support specialist with the Army’s 1st Battalion, 37th Field Artillery Regiment, at what is now Joint Base Lewis-McChord. An Army spokesman has said the position wouldn’t have taught Harpham about bomb construction.
Harpham seemed to disdain religion.
When Miller wrote in January 2005 that racists should not attack Christians, Harpham said he agreed.
“If whites want to practice Judaism or take up Islam or Christianity party members should not ridicule them. And while were at it lets not poke fun at them homosexuals either, lets just be totally neutral,” Harpham wrote as Snuffy in response to a posting. But, he added, “There is a need for a new party or group simply because there is not a single white org. that is Christian free and we need one that with a policy that excludes these nut ball hymn singers.”
In a May 2008 post asking for contacts in northeastern Washington, Harpham wrote, “I am interested in meeting people close to me unless they are the kind of people that are waiting for Jesus to come back, then I can do without.”
He also wrote of being influenced by writings and podcasts by Edgar Steele, the former Aryan Nations lawyer who is currently awaiting trial on federal charges that he hired a man to kill his wife. Harpham promoted a speaking engagement by Steele in Florida in 2006 and wrote in 2007 that he “finally broke down and had to go out buy some silver,” because of Steele’s influence.
Harpham eventually became an active supporter of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination; he urged others to make individual rather than group contributions to help avoid any links between white supremacists and Paul’s candidacy. Harpham claimed in 2007 to have made two contributions, one for $50 and another for $25, to the Paul campaign but contradicted himself in other posts, saying he supports the campaign but wouldn’t spend money on it.
“I don’t care about getting America back on its feet, what I want is for Ron Paul to provide the conditions for us to build White communities with our own businesses and schools,” he wrote on Christmas Eve 2007. “We could do very well under these conditions and start amassing great wealth to expand.”
But as Paul’s presidential prospects faded and the U.S. economy tanked, violent themes began emerging in more of Harpham’s online comments.
Harpham last posted on Jan. 16, a day before the bomb was discovered. Ten days earlier, he had offered to let fugitive white supremacist Craig Cobb stay at his home. It’s unclear whether Cobb, who faces hate crime charges in Canada, took him up on the offer.
Frank Harrill, agent in charge of the FBI’s Spokane office, said only Harpham was arrested at the property on Wednesday, and Canadian officials say Cobb’s whereabouts remain unknown.